I could have celebrated Duke Ellington’s birthday with his best-known works — “Satin Doll,” or the First Sacred Concert, or the Far East Suite.
(Or, hell, “Sir Duke.”)
Instead, I am enjoying a few fingers of rye in the company of one of Ellington’s less celebrated albums, while chewing on questions of artistic authenticity.
1970’s New Orleans Suite is usually described by critics as pleasant but not essential, memorable chiefly as the last hurrah of Ellington’s longtime alto saxman Johnny Hodges. Hodges died in the interim between the album’s two recording sessions and appears on five of its nine tracks, his tone gentle and dignified to the last.
The cover of New Orleans Suite gives a foretaste of its contents. It’s devoid of any hint of bons-temps-roulez; in its simple gray-on-white portrait, Ellington looks like an old man peering melancholically through a rain-slicked window.
The music, similarly, features few traces of the giddy parade funk or whorehouse rumba so often associated with the Crescent City. There’s a tune called “Second Line,” but its rhythm is straight swing; only “Portrait of Sidney Bechet,” one of four musical “portraits” on the album, so much as flirts with a clave.
When the music makes up its mind to gather momentum, as on the opening “Blues for New Orleans,” it feels like a determined march, not a soar or strut … and the closing “Portrait of Mahalia Jackson” sounds, in parts, like dejection itself. The New Orleans of these compositions is not the city of French Quarter gaiety, but the city of aging riverfront warehouses and small, careworn houses with mismatched shutters.
On a certain level, this is a fine thing.
Casual listeners (read: me) tend to lump New Orleans music into a good-timey Mardi Gras bag … your Dr. John, your Professor Longhair, your Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Great music, all of it. There’s a reason it’s so celebrated. But it’s also good to be reminded that people can make worthwhile New Orleans music (or New Orleans-inspired music) without the familiar, verging-on-cliched rhythmic and thematic ingredients.
It would be easy to stop there. But, as the band plays on, I am led into larger questions about the New Orleans authenticity that underlies the whole project.
My understanding is that the New Orleans Suite was not an organic Ellington invention: Jazz impresario George Wein commissioned him to write it for the 1970 New Orleans Jazz Festival. (The suite performed at the festival included only five songs; the four “portraits” were added for the subsequent studio recording.)
Sure, Duke knew New Orleans and plenty of New Orleanians. But one wonders how much of the music was actually inspired by the city … or whether Ellington, faced with a theme, an expectation and a deadline, simply pulled unused or partially developed tunes out of his ragbag and gave them titles that would please his patron.
There’s some precedent for that. At least one of the tunes of the Far East Suite, Hodges’ gorgeous showcase “Isfahan,” wasn’t written with the Far East in mind; it was in the Ellington band’s repertoire prior to the world tour that inspired the album.
That doesn’t make the music any less beautiful.
But for those of us who like to puff on a big ol’ meerschaum pipe full of backstory and context while we listen, it complicates our relationship to the music. Is it really what it claims to be? Is an impressionistic portrait of smoke from a factory chimney being passed off as a jar full of roses?
No song on New Orleans Suite encapsulates this conflict quite so much as my favorite, “Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies,” a lengthy feature for flutist Norris Turney.
In the album’s liner notes, Ellington is quoted as describing the song as “a rhythmic tone parallel to the excruciating ecstasies one finds oneself suspended in when one is in the throes of the jingling rhythmic jollies of Bourbon Street.”
I don’t hear the slightest bit of pleasure — excruciating or otherwise — in the recorded piece. I hear ominous rumbling, foreboding, and thick storm clouds drifting in from the Gulf. I don’t see sailors wearing “I Got Bourbon-Faced on Shit Street” T-shirts; I see cobras uncoiling from street-corner gutters, swaying to their own prehistoric rhythms, poised to strike.
Duke forgot more about Bourbon Street than I’ll ever know, I’m sure, so his portrait is more informed than any I could construct.
I still can’t get around the difference between the image in his mind and the image in mine, which is sufficiently different to make me wonder whether Duke really had the French Quarter in mind when he wrote it.
Here’s the tune in question. Maybe you’ll see the smoking chimney; maybe the jar of roses; or maybe something else again: